Oxford: Pandemic highlights Legion's continued mission, amplifies congressional goals

During a Washington Conference conducted almost exclusively virtually, American Legion National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford was able to testify in person in front of members of Congress on March 4.

But much of that testimony focused on the very reason the hundreds of American Legion Family members normally in the nation’s capital for the conference were forced to participate via their PCs, laptops, phones and other mobile devices: a year-long global pandemic that changed the way day-to-day life is conducted.

And Oxford, now in his second year as national commander because of the cancellation of the 2020 American Legion National Convention, was able to share with members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs how members of the American Legion Family responded to the pandemic.

“American Legion posts would be forced to close their buildings in the days and months ahead,” Oxford said, referencing the start of the pandemic, which coincided with The American Legion’s 2020 Washington Conference. “Many of our wartime veteran members lost their jobs. Some lost businesses or their homes.

"Many of us lost loved ones, colleagues and friends to COVID-19 or its effects – both physical and psychological.

“But the American Legion Family did not lose focus on the mission at hand, nor did we lose faith in our ability to strengthen America at a time of great uncertainty and stress.”

Oxford shared the success of The American Legion’s Buddy Check program, which he said reached out and found 10s of thousands of isolated veterans in need of food, medication, transportation, voting assistance, mental health checks and “most important, a compassionate voice during a tough and confusing time.”

Oxford said American Legion Family members provided the American Red Cross with a record number of blood donations during the pandemic. And “when face masks and other protective gear were in short supply, the American Legion Family found them, made them, raised money to buy them for others, and distributed them wherever they were needed – in the hundreds of thousands,” he said. “Our members fed the hungry when grocery shelves were empty and restaurants were closed. We protected homeless veterans who were especially vulnerable to infection.”

Oxford noted how The American Legion went virtual for its national meetings, as did American Legion departments and posts. “And we worked with VA and Philips to launch Project ATLAS that uses American Legion posts to offer veterans safe, private places to have virtual, online appointments with their health-care professionals, no matter how far away they are, or how difficult it might be to reach them in person,” he said.

But, Oxford said, those efforts didn’t replace The American Legion’s priorities for Congress, the White House or the Pentagon. Rather, he said, they “amplified them,” before going on to share organization’s focus during the current session of Congress.

“Among our top priorities for the 117th Congress, you will find the term ‘peer support,’” he said. “Success of The American Legion Buddy Check program since it was introduced in 2019, and grew in importance during the pandemic, can and should be made a cornerstone of VA outreach.

“We call on Congress to reintroduce the Buddy Check Week Bill of 2020 to designate one week a year for VA as a time for laser-focused peer-wellness outreach. After 2020, we in The American Legion know just how important Buddy Checks are for a veteran’s mental health, emotional stability and dignity.”

The American Legion also is asking for reintroduction of the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act, which would attach trained peer-support specialists to local American Legion posts. “There is no better place or way to find veterans in need – and people willing and wanting to help them,” Oxford said. “Both of these measures stand to save veteran lives now being lost at too high a rate – to suicide.

“Peer-support programs can put faces, voices and real circumstances behind the people we seek to help: veterans with (post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury), those who have been victims of military sexual assault, caregivers, and the rapidly growing number of women veterans who want nothing more than fair treatment and quality, gender-specific services from their VA health-care facilities.”

Oxford said reports of high incidences of sexual harassment from male staff and patients at VA health-care facilities toward women veterans remains a concern of the organization. “As we testified last summer, we call on Congress to direct VA to tolerate NO sexual harassment and to ‘foster a culture of safety, dignity, accessibility and acceptance of all veterans,’” he said. “There can be no barriers to VA health care – especially during the time of COVID-19. Insufficient staffing, or staff behavior that repels use of VA, can be such barriers.”

The need to recruit and retain VA health-care providers – including doctors, nurses, mental health counselors and practitioners who specialize in the needs of women – could not have been more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oxford stressed.

“Resources were stretched dangerously thin as beds filled during the year. Over-burdened as they were, VA providers have stood strong,” he said. “We all owe those doctors, nurses and specialists our deepest appreciation for their tireless and continuing devotion. I call them the ‘infantry’ in our war against the coronavirus.”

While the pandemic has created a strain on VA resources, Oxford noted there were issues prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. “Unfortunately, that high-quality VA care is not accessible to enough veterans in the best of times,” he said. “We all have work to do if we truly intend to efficiently connect veterans, especially those in areas where care is difficult to reach, with the VA services they earned and deserve.

“The initial steps taken last year in the area of tele-health need to become giant strides in the months and years ahead.”

Oxford again referenced The American Legion’s collaboration with Philipps and VA through Project ATLAS, where a tele-health station has been placed in Post 176 in Springfield, Va., that is open and ready for safe, convenient use for VA patients.

While VA has expanded its tele-health options, Oxford said that option is only available to veterans that have the “right computer and internet connection to take advantage of it. For many of our nation’s older veterans, that’s just not a reality. That’s why Project ATLAS is so important. This month, we will be opening a new location at American Legion Post 12 in Wickenburg, Ariz.

“And due to a recent decommissioning of a VA outpatient clinic, a third Project ATLAS site will soon open at American Legion Post 5 in Emporia, Kan. Future sites in Ohio and West Virginia are also coming soon.”

A continued priority for The American Legion, one that Oxford said has been the case for decades, is government accountability for toxic exposure during military service. “As COVID-19 proved especially dangerous for people with respiratory issues and cancers, The American Legion’s call for accountability to veterans exposed to burn pits and now, those who were exposed at a contaminated base in Uzbekistan, known as K-2, is especially urgent,” he said.

Oxford again called for Congress to eliminate the 90-10 loophole that allows for-profit colleges to take advance of veterans using the GI Bill. “We appreciate the fact that it was recommended as part of the coronavirus relief package, because there certainly is a connection to the pandemic,” he said. “But if closing the 90-10 loophole needs to stand alone as a separate measure, Congress has our support.”

Other legislative priorities for The American Legion include:

• Re-opening the pathway to U.S. citizenship for immigrants who serve in our Armed Forces;

• Protecting members of the U.S. Coast Guard in the event of government shutdown;

• Insisting the federal government reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers, not just for the jobs that would create for veterans and other Americans, but as a matter of public health and national security; and

• The American Legion’s renewed call for a constitutional amendment that would allow states to pass and enforce laws to protect the U.S. flag from deliberate acts of desecration.

“The pandemic. Turmoil over racial injustice last summer. The storming of the U.S. Capitol in January. Veterans struggling, alone and isolated, at risk of self-harm. It all adds up to a profound need for unity,” Oxford said. “And priorities that strive to make our nation stronger, safer and hopeful that the lessons we have learned over the last year will help us fulfill a pledge I have been sending to The American Legion throughout my tenure as national commander: to build a foundation for the future.”